Tuesday, 30 August 2016


IF anyone was doubting why Ulster signed Charles Piutau, they were given a pretty convincing reason on Friday night.

It's still true that Ulster's strongest and deepest position is their back three, with three of them away on Ireland duty over summer, another an injured British & Irish Lion, and two underage prospects who have the ability to become first team regulars over the course of the upcoming season among their ranks.

And yet, somehow, Piutau adds onto that and then some.

His outrageous offload stole all the headlines on Friday night, and possibly my most excited Tweet of the game, but it was just the cherry on top of the outstanding performance that the New Zealander put on display at the Kingspan Stadium against the Saints.

You struggle to find a flaw with his game. He's quick. He's powerful. His handling is exceptional. His tackle-breaking ability is unbelievable. On one occasion he was even required to clear the ball and he managed to hammer it from his own five metre line to halfway.

He's been coy in the build-up to the season, running out the usual media-friendly lines of "I'll just be happy to be named in the squad." But, while it's true that there is an abundance of back three talent at Ulster, there is no doubt whatsoever that Piutau will be one of the first names on the teamsheet, whether he plays at full-back or on the wing.

Friday night confirmed it. He's the marquee signing in the Pro12 season (and would be by some distance had Ulster not also signed Marcell Coetzee) and his club will expect him to perform like he did last week on a regular basis.

Should he do so, then things may be looking up for Ulster this year, especially after so many years of May heartbreak.

But he's not the only reason that Les Kiss, and Ulster fans, should be getting excited about the upcoming season. If pre-season is a true indication of what's to come then it seems to suggest that some of Ulster's glaring weaknesses have been addressed.

Take the starting tighthead slot as an example. Since John Afoa's departure, nobody has convincingly nailed that shirt down, with Wiehahn Herbst showing glimpses of promise between spells on the treatment table.

But in has arrived Rodney Ah You, a much-maligned prop in his time at Connacht, who has started his spell at Ulster with real determination. His scrummaging, a glaring weakness out west, appears to have been improved since his arrival without any detriment to his ball carrying strengths.

Ah You is a prop with a very high ceiling. He was always someone who could be a very dynamic player should he be able to marry his powerful physical presence with some set piece nuance. If Ulster have indeed solved that problem, they could have the prop that Rory Best raved about in the off-season.

Brett Herron also has arrived with a lot of potential, and it seems the former Bath prodigy could answer Ulster's question as to who will back up Paddy Jackson when he's away on international duty.

He hasn't set the world alight, no, but alongside either Pienaar or Marshall at half-back, the 20-year old has proven he can already do a job as the back line playmaker, with his inch-perfect pass to Piutau for his try against the Saints almost as good as the full back's offload.

So long a problem area for Ulster, Herron looks like he may be the person to solve it.

Elsewhere the maul, so many times last season a source of tries, appears to be in rude health once more if the friendly against the Saints is anything to go by. And the scrum looks solid enough too, if not the preferred dominant.

Now the challenge is to carry that Northampton performance into the Dragons.

It should be a five pointer for Ulster. Theoretically it should be a comfortable five pointer that will put Les Kiss' charges up near (if not at) the top of the table after round one with a confidence booster to take to Treviso next weekend.

Then again, the Dragons have never been ones to adhere to the form books, nor to the so-called hierarchy of teams. Such was the close nature of the two games last season, one would be forgiven for believing they were two teams competing at the top of the table, not 4th vs. 10th.

But a Piutau-backed Ulster should not be in any position to be challenged by the men of Gwent. They may find the going just a little harder than what they did against Northampton, but ideally this is a perfect start for the Ulstermen.

All that's left is for them to prove that.

Thursday, 26 May 2016


And yet again an Ulster title charge comes unstuck at the RDS Arena.

It’s become an all-too familiar sight – an Ulster side going down to Dublin in forlorn hope only to be served a lesson in how to play knockout rugby by Leinster. You’d think that after the second or third attempt we would have gained some kind of knowledge or experience in how to at least be competitive in the RDS but last Friday was proof we have not.

The problem, one would surmise, is wholly mental. We saw three weeks ago that this Ulster side are more than capable of outplaying their southern rivals, especially with the superb back line that Ulster possess, and yet whenever it came down to the crucial game of the season they couldn’t perform. Leo Cullen’s men were the faster out of the blocks and, even though Ulster clawed back their initial lead, their start was the catalyst for their overall performance.

If their start to the first half was the catalyst, then their start to the second half was what sealed them the game. Having weathered an early Ulster storm that would have seen the visitors take the lead for the first time in the game, Leinster struck a hammer blow by scoring themselves through Jamie Heaslip – it’s those kind of scores that can turn a game on its head, and in this case it turned out to be a very important score.

For Ulster now, it’s back to the drawing board.

Such is a shame that after a long season the instant we have no more rugby left to play we move onto next season. It’s not a bad thing necessarily – all fans will naturally focus on the possibility of silverware this time next year instead of reflecting upon what went wrong this year. Still, it’s funny how the default reaction is to pretend this season didn’t happen and things will all improve come May 2017.

But as I say, the season is over and we have a couple of months now to regroup before returning for pre-season. Charles Piutau, Rodney Ah You, Kieran Treadwell and Brett Herron will all join up with the squad ready to get involved, while Marcell Coetzee will also arrive in Belfast to start his rehab from injury picked up on duty for the Sharks.

With such an influx on talent confidence will be high that, with no World Cup to distract us at the start of the season and a full pre-season with Les Kiss at the helm, this upcoming season will have a better conclusion than the one that has just passed. While not all of Ulster’s problems within the squad have been addressed by the incoming players, a like-for-like assessment of the current squad and the squad at this stage last year would reflect on how Bryn Cunningham has managed to strengthen this team.

This team, however, will go nowhere under the shadow of Leinster. That was their fifth knockout defeat to Leinster and it’s safe to say that they have our number when it comes down to the games that matter the most. Until Ulster can emerge out of the shadow of their provincial rivals they will continue to be considered the bridesmaids rather than the bride.

The time has come for them to stop taking lessons and pass the exam.

Les Kiss will reflect on this season as perhaps one that got away. He has openly admitted that his expectations were slightly lower given he didn’t take over full time until after the World Cup, but he will be able to sit down and look at games that really cost his side dearly – the games such as Munster and the Scarlets at home as well as Cardiff away, games that Ulster should have won and yet didn’t.

Was it a disappointing season? In some ways yes and in some ways no. At the start of the season you would have taken any kind of a top four finish, especially in a World Cup year. But certainly coming into the Six Nations you thought Ulster had an excellent chance of finishing in the top two of the PRO12 and they ended up in a below-par fourth. In the Champions’ Cup too, taking on Saracens was always going to be a bridge too far so to finish with four wins in that pool was a good outcome, but to not qualify off the back of that was disappointing.

Overall, it’s a season that had its highs (doubling Toulouse) and its lows and Kiss will see it as a good platform upon which to build going forward. Pat Lam did not succeed with Connacht in his first year, so similarly we have to give our man some time too. Next season we should see some more youth players being brought into the line-up as we continue to build our squad depth going forward.

And then we’ll be better prepared than ever before to go to the RDS and win.

Tuesday, 17 May 2016


A couple of weeks ago Ulster were staying grounded after a very impressive win over Leinster, this week they need to do the same.

Not to belittle their achievements, because a bonus point win in Swansea is never something to be turned down, but the Ospreys were shorn short of 14 players for the final round contest. Perhaps not all of them would have featured for the Welsh side, but a good portion of them would have – Alun Wyn Jones and Justin Tipuric among them.

You can only play what’s in front of you though and to that end Ulster were excellent in attack, if not a little bit lethargic in defence. But the game was always going to be an open and fast-paced affair that, coupled with two of the best back lines in the PRO12 that were both desperately searching for a bonus point, would yield tries.

And in that sense the visitors outplayed their hosts with some scintillating play at times. Andrew Trimble’s try, fortunate as it was that Rhys Webb was unable to keep his feet at the crucial moment, was a piece of individual brilliance that turned the tide just before the half and was the catalyst that Ulster needed to go on and be assured of the victory.

If it was Trimble’s try that turned the tide in Ulster’s favour, it was Chris Henry’s quick thinking that got them that place in the playoffs.

It was a case of quick thinking combined with an intricate knowledge of the rules of rugby that provided Henry with the opportunity to score the bonus point try (not needed in the end as it turned out) by diving in at the side of a ruck to place the ball down after it had been rolled back over the line by the aforementioned Webb. The lengthy TMO process was unnecessary and, quite frankly, ridiculous – an excellent and astute try from the openside flanker who is now very much back to his best.

In fact, for the second time in two weeks, it was Ulster’s much maligned forwards who were the better of the two. The back row were instrumental in turning over plenty of ball in dangerous areas when the Ospreys were threatening and, coming into the most important part of the season, it will come as a great relief to Ulster supporters across the island to see Henry recapture the form we know he is capable of alongside Iain Henderson at blindside.

You hope Stephen Ferris was watching the game because Ulster are providing him with ample proof that a team does not need a plethora of big ball carriers in order to be successful. Les Kiss has devised a game plan circulating around Ulster’s lethal back division and, as long as they are getting the quick ball they should from a back row containing two opensides, then the need for several guys to make big yards is effectively negated.

It would be nice to have a few big ball carriers, don’t get me wrong. But when you boast an all-international back line it makes sense to utilise it to the full, right?

It is there that Ulster will fancy their chances against Leinster this week. Don’t let their half century against Treviso fool you into thinking Leo Cullen’s men are back to their best – in actuality they are the team in the worst form of the final four. If Ulster can keep Leinster’s bulldozing forwards quiet then the semi-final is definitely there for the taking regardless of the Ulstermen’s poor record in Dublin.

Ulster should take every confidence heading down to the RDS on Friday – they know they have the necessary components to beat Leinster after their victory at the Kingspan Stadium a few of weeks ago and they should draw from that experience. Leinster will be out for blood after that defeat, but if Les Kiss can mentally prepare his side for another difficult away game then this is a fantastic opportunity for a side to finally pick up an away win in a PRO12 semi-final.

But they must stay grounded. Ulster still haven’t won anything yet and they know that.

That said, this year it looks like they really could go all the way.

Tuesday, 3 May 2016


Post-match at the Kingspan Stadium was an interesting event.

After Leo Cullen had ironically brandished Ruan Pienaar a “cheat” for milking his injury for Ulster’s penalty try (I’d like to see him get up immediately after clashing heads with Rob Kearney), there was a distinct and recurring theme to Ulster’s responses to the media after the game.

One by one Les Kiss, Stuart McCloskey and Chris Henry all stated the same thing – “we haven’t won anything yet”. A particularly astute line to take, especially in the euphoria of such a brilliant win, a reflection upon how grounded this Ulster side is.

It goes without saying that what they say is true. Ulster’s 30-6 win over Leinster, impressive as it was, was just another step along the path leading towards the semi-finals of the Guinness PRO12. The manner of the win pales into insignificance should they find themselves unable to get the result they require this weekend in Swansea.

And that raises another question: what is the result that Ulster require in Swansea?

At the conclusion of the Scarlets’ bonus point win over the Dragons, the calculators immediately snapped into action. Ulster’s destiny is still in their own hands – four tries at the Liberty Stadium will see them into the final four without a doubt, but if the game ends in any other result then they’ll be keeping a close eye upon events in Limerick.

Les Kiss will be hoping that Munster will do his side a favour and that his side will do them a favour in return. Munster, still not qualified for Europe just yet, could really do with the Ospreys losing on Saturday while Ulster will be desperate for the Scarlets to be denied any points at Thomond Park so that they don’t need a result in Swansea. It would be a win-win for both teams involved.

Of course, it’s never that easy. The Welsh sides will be more than up for the two games for their respective reasons which makes this weekend’s games tantalisingly exciting. Eight months of rugby comes down to two games which will decide who is in and who is out and it’ll be the side that blinks first who will be the ones left ruing their missed opportunities.

Off the back of Saturday’s win Ulster will be very confident they’ll be in the play-offs.

Defensively sound and potent in attack, Ulster took that game by the scruff of the neck in the second half and they turned the screw to ruthlessly pull Leinster apart. Jackson’s try towards the end perhaps put a bit of gloss on the result that seemed a trifle unfair upon the visitors, but that takes nothing away from how good the Ulstermen were against their undoubted bogey team.

The pack had been brutally torn apart by Stephen Ferris in the build up to the game and, on paper, it wasn’t unreasonable to think that Leinster would have the upper hand in the close encounters. But the Ulster eight matched their counterparts step by step up front and that paved the way for the hosts’ superior back line to carve their way through the flailing blue defence, marshalled by a certain young star.

Paddy Jackson was masterful against his two Irish rivals and pulled the strings from fly-half, continually asking questions of the Leinster defence and moving play about effortlessly. His ability to draw in three defenders to create the space for Jared Payne to score was, quite simply, world class and his try was just reward for a special performance in front of Ireland coach Joe Schmidt, a performance in which he outshone both Johnny Sexton and Ian Madigan, his rivals for the Ireland jersey.

But Ulster cannot get carried away.

Their game against the Ospreys on Saturday is just as important as last Saturday’s was in terms of the result, although this time they probably won’t be able to rely on their opponents’ ill-discipline as much as they did last weekend. Leinster’s cynical play wasn’t the main reason why Ulster won, far from it, but it did help them considerably and you would imagine the Ospreys won’t be so foolish in their decision making with so much on the line.

Ulster played very well against Leinster and Les Kiss should be very proud of what they achieved, but what he was saying after the game speaks volumes about how level-headed the Aussie coach is. He knows that the job is nowhere near done yet and that if he wants to take his team to where they want to be he needs to get them to conquer one of their biggest foes of the season three more times.

Their away record.

Wednesday, 27 April 2016


With Ulster having an off week, I find myself thinking upon the changing landscape of European rugby.

Take, as a case in point, this season’s European finals. Both are Anglo-French affairs as Harlequins and Montpellier meet in the Challenge Cup final before Saracens meet Racing 92 in the showpiece that is the Champions’ Cup final. Should we deny those four their places in their respective finals then we would be fools as they have been the top four sides.

Where is the PRO12 representation? Somewhat ironically it was Connacht and the Dragons who proved our biggest challengers for European glory in the Challenge Cup and both have fallen at previous hurdles, while in the Champions’ Cup it was Ulster who came closest to reaching the last eight, pipped on tries scored for one of the best runner-up spots.

Instead we have reached the stage where only two PRO12 sides made it out of their pools in either competition and none made it to finals weekend in Lyon. With a severe deficit in spending between the PRO12 and the other two leagues, as well as caps on foreign imports placed on the provinces by the IRFU, it is simply a sad confirmation of a fact we already knew – the PRO12 sides cannot compete.

How are the Celtic sides meant to put up opposition to the star studded Racing 92 team?

At the weekend we saw Racing’s Springbok international centre Johannes Goosen helped off the pitch near the end of their game with Leicester. For most teams this would be a major blow, but who was his replacement? France international fly-half Remi Tales. How are we supposed to compete with that depth when we can only sign four players of that quality from abroad?

When all the teams in the competition aren’t operating on a level playing field then it’s easy to see where there will be problems. Unless a PRO12 team gets a rather fortuitous pool draw then they can kiss a knock-out place goodbye and can turn their focus back to domestic matters – something every PRO12 team in the Champions’ Cup had to do this year.

And not only are the teams different but the attendances are dwindling too.

Over the weekend we saw only 38,000 fans attend the two games combined. For the two semi-finals of the northern hemisphere’s supposedly elite competition. That is dreadful.

It’s a figure that sounds even worse when you consider that 45,000 fans descended on the AVIVA Stadium in 2012 to see Ulster defeat Edinburgh, and when you combine it with the other semi-final that weekend (Clermont vs Leinster in Bordeaux) it gives you a total attendance of 78,000 – more than double what was pulled in at the weekend.

You could put it down to the fact that the games were played at stadia with smaller capacities (24,000 for the Madejski Stadium and 30,500 for the City Ground) except for the fact that neither stadium was even close to being filled. In fact, it’s probably better the EPCR elected to play the games at smaller stadia – imagine how bad it would have looked on TV had the two games been played at Twickenham like they would have been done in the past.

The European Cup is dying a slow death.

EPCR cannot afford to have such shocking attendance figures in their semi-finals for another season otherwise they might have a few angry TV companies banging on their door wondering where the packed out stadia they’re supposed to be broadcasting have disappeared to. Not only that but the revenue they’ll be missing out on will be substantial too, even if they have increased ticket prices for the games.

Once the highest club competition in European (and possibly even world) rugby, the Champions’ Cup now represents the gulf in class between the PRO12 and its competitors. If the IRFU want the provinces to be competitive again then they have to look at amending their non-Irish qualified quota because none of the provinces, on current strength, will be returning to dine at the top table of Europe any time soon with their squad limits.

Instead, we’ll continue to watch the English and French take all the spoils for years to come.

Tuesday, 19 April 2016


As far as results went, last weekend couldn’t have gone better for Ulster.

They did what they needed to do over in Parma, Glasgow took down the Scarlets (rather handily too) to knock them out of the top four at our expense, Connacht kept Munster further down the table and more or less ruled them out of the top four race for good while Leinster did the same to Edinburgh on Friday night at the RDS Arena.

In fact, probably the only result that didn’t go in our favour was the Ospreys defeating Treviso on Friday night in Swansea. That said, if you were really expecting Treviso to do us a solid then you’re probably deluded.

The overall result of the weekend’s action? Ulster are now in control of their own destiny.

Beforehand we were still relying on other results to go our way for us to make our way back into the top four, but now that we’re one of those top four we know that two wins over Leinster and the Ospreys will guarantee us a fourth successive PRO12 semi-final appearance without needing to worry about what other teams are doing.

Not that we’re anywhere near close to being guaranteed our final four spot though. Leinster in a couple of weeks will be a fascinating match-up at the Kingspan Stadium as they aim to finish as top seeds in the league while the Ospreys are always a tough ask away from home, even if they do languish in ninth in the PRO12 table.

Of course we can still be done favours by other teams, even if we don’t need them. If the Dragons can rile themselves up for Judgment Day and defeat the Scarlets, while at the same time we defeat Leinster, then we will go into the final day of the season in the familiar position of knowing we’re finishing fourth in the league and being able to rest a few players before the knockout rugby begins.

Probably best not to think about that though.

We have a week off, where we get to sit back and watch Charles Piutau work his magic for Wasps in their Champions’ Cup semi-final against Saracens and eagerly await his arrival in Belfast next season, before we have to focus on taking apart Leinster. That must be our only aim at the moment – our trip to Swansea has to be put on the backburners until Leo Cullen’s men are dealt with.

The thing is, though, you get the feeling Ulster are going to do it – they just always seem to pull off a top four place no matter how unlikely it seems throughout the season. Even when we went through that mid-Six Nations slump when we lost to the Scarlets and Cardiff in successive weeks and things started to look a lot bleaker, there was still that belief that the top four wasn’t beyond us, and now you get the sense that we will do it.

That belief will be furthered by the return of a few players, especially Tommy Bowe who returned to the game as if he had never left it on Saturday. His first try was an excellent mix of power and pace to brush off the flailing tackle of Valerio Bernabo and still go over while his second try was an excellent read and interception, even if he did nearly drop it. His inclusion to an already talent-stocked back three will be huge going into the last few games of the season.

Not to mention we have Nick Williams coming back to add some power to the forwards and Wiehahn Herbst to reintroduce to the front row as well. Those two alone will add a lot of ballast to our pack, which we will need against the bruising Leinster eight, and again will provide a huge lift to our squad as we head into the final few weeks of the season.

It’s little things like that which can turn the tide in your favour and now that we’re on the inside looking out we will be desperate not to let anybody else back in. If we can ride the home support against Leinster and then carry that through to the week after in the Liberty Stadium then we should be able to pick up enough points to finish in the top four. Then we can look forward to another away semi-final and focus on trying to finally win one.

But first, let’s just get there to begin with.

Wednesday, 13 April 2016


It’s just Ulster’s injury luck for a player to get injured before even arriving in Belfast.

Our heart goes out to Marcell Coetzee – it’s hard for any player to hear the news that they’ll be sidelined for nine months, especially when it means he’s made his last appearance for his hometown Sharks as well. You can only hope he makes a speedy recovery that will see him hopefully make his Ulster debut before the end of the year.

The injury bug seems to be striking everyone right now too. Ulster seem destined to be without Nick Williams, Alan O’Connor, Stuart McCloskey and Louis Ludik again this weekend against Zebre and while it shouldn’t make a difference to the final outcome it’s better to have them available than not.

It’s a necessary reminder that rugby nowadays is a squad sport, and not just a competition of who can get the best 23 players for their team. Between the many injuries and international call-ups, Ulster haven’t been able to field their strongest team this season once (Saracens at home was probably the closest we came to that), further emphasising the need for quality dripping down throughout the squad and not just at the top ranks.

It’ll be tested towards the end of the season.

It seems to be fate that O’Connor will play no further part this year while Ludik and Williams have been struggling with persistent niggles all season – there’s three key individuals who we could be facing a very crucial run-in without. Those are the positions we need our squad players to step up into and prove their worth in our set-up.

Guys like Pete Browne and Sean Reidy will have to slot into the gaps left by O’Connor and Williams and bolster our pack. But, to their credit, both have already impressed this season so far – Browne offers a strong carrying option in the second row while Reidy has excelled at the breakdown and has been probably Ulster’s breakout player of the season.

Ludik’s loss is offset by the return of a certain Tommy Bowe from injury – remember him? – while McCloskey’s loss is only softened by the fact that Ulster have a seemingly never-ending list of talented centres ready to slot into the squad. Stuart Olding will probably replace him – equally as talented in a different way.

But it’s a reflection that Ulster still need squad depth.

While the backs stocks seem to be relatively deep, the same cannot be said for the forwards. With Williams out, Saturday’s game should provide an opportunity to give either Stephen Mulholland another shot at number eight or potentially start Academy number eight Lorcan Dow after his man of the match performance against Munster A last week.

If Dow can build on that appearance against Treviso earlier in the season then there is some real potential for him to even take the 8 shirt on a more regular basis, especially next season in the period of time between Coetzee arriving and actually being available to play for us. Even if he’s not ready then the ever-reliable Roger Wilson is on standby for us, but this is a glorious opportunity to look at some of our young options.

Because it’s all well and good bringing in players of Coetzee’s calibre and also Charles Piutau in the backs, but if you’re not producing the young talent to go with it then you’re still going to struggle. Ulster are going to be away in the semi-finals of the PRO12 this season and you can probably chalk that down to the two defeats to the Scarlets and Cardiff during the Six Nations – times when we relied on our squad depth.

Rugby is no longer a 23-man game.

I feel like we have improved our depth, especially from previous seasons. Our backs are littered with quality – even our young players such as Sammy Arnold and Rory Scholes have stepped up admirably when called upon – and some of the forwards have made an impact too such as the aforementioned Browne and Reidy.

There is still room to improve, however, and Les will know that. Acquisitions like Rodney Ah You, Kieran Treadwell and Brett Herron for next season will undoubtedly have improved our depth, but there’s also a requirement to fill from within with the likes of Dow, John Andrew, Dave Shanahan and Jacob Stockdale continuing to get chances in the first team when possible.

Games like this weekend should provide opportunities to give those guys some chance of impressing the coaching staff, however sadly this game has come at a time in the season where Ulster need the five points, end of. That means a full team will be out on the pitch going all guns blazing for the 80 minutes.

The young names will bide their time for another day.